Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Pandora's Star, by Peter F. Hamilton

A big epic space opera with galaxy-threatening aliens. I almost gave a shit.

Pandora's Star

Tor, 2005, 1152 pages

In AD 2329, humanity has colonised over four hundred planets, all of them interlinked by wormholes. With Earth at its centre, the Intersolar Commonwealth now occupies a sphere of space approximately four hundred light years across.

When an astronomer on the outermost world of Gralmond, observes a star 2000 light years distant - and then a neighbouring one - vanish, it is time for the Commonwealth to discover what happened to them. For what if their disappearance indicates some kind of galactic conflict? Since a conventional wormhole cannot be used to reach these vanished stars, for the first time humans need to build a faster-than-light star ship, the Second Chance. But it arrives to find each 'vanished' star encased in a giant force field -- and within one of them resides a massive alien civilisation.

The publisher's summary of Pandora's Star describes the book thus:

Critics have compared the engrossing space operas of Peter F. Hamilton to the classic sagas of such SF giants as Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. But Hamilton's best-selling fiction - powered by a fearless imagination and world-class storytelling skills - has also earned him comparison to Tolstoy and Dickens. Hugely ambitious, wildly entertaining, philosophically stimulating: the novels of Peter F. Hamilton will change the way you think about science fiction.

To which I say: Tolstoy and Dickens? Come on, now.

I enjoyed Pandora's Star. But it was a huge multi-POV space opera with absolutely nothing I haven't read before, and it took a normal-sized book-and-a-half to get anywhere interesting. More disappointingly, it made me realize what's been lacking in a lot of the science fiction I've been reading lately -- there's so damned little of it that really has depth, complexity, and compelling, nuanced characters. Pandora's Star is Epic Universe-Building sci-fi with Big Dumb Artifacts, glitzy ultra-tech plot devices, genocidal alien space fleets, a Federated Commonwealth Republic of United Planets that all mostly resemble Earth circa the year the book was written with extra toys, and the obligatory gratuitous sex scenes with hot chicks banging nerdy dork science fiction authorsastronomers. In other words, it's mostly like other space operas I've read, except bigger.

The prologue introduces us to Wilson Kime, destined to become the Michael Collins of the first manned Mars mission -- the guy no one remembers. Or so it seems. What actually happens is the astronauts are punked just as they set foot on Mars by a pair of geeks who reveal that they've invented wormhole technology, instantly rendering conventional space travel obsolete.

Hundreds of years later, the Commonwealth spans hundreds of star systems. Memory storage and rejuvenation technology has made death an unpleasant intermission rather than a termination of life. Humans have encountered a few other alien races, but no rival civilizations.

When an astronomer notices two stars have just disappeared, 1000 light years from Earth, they conclude that a Dyson Sphere has been erected around them. The technology and engineering necessary to do such a thing obviously implies a vastly powerful alien civilization. In order to investigate, they need to send a starship -- something the Commonwealth has never needed before.

Wilson Kime is the only member of the original Mars crew who is still active and engaged in Commonwealth affairs. Being one of the oldest living humans, he's also pretty much the last astronaut, so he is recruited to captain the Second Chance.

The name of the book is Pandora's Star, which should tell you something about what happens when they reach the Dyson Alpha system to find out what it contains.

At this point, the book picks up, but the preceding hundreds of pages introduced us to about a dozen different characters whose relevance was rarely apparent, from the young "first lifer" trophy wife of a millionaire convicted of murdering his ex, to the incorruptible police officer who turned in her own parents for kidnapping her as infant, to the terrorists fighting the "Starflyer," an alien entity they believe has infiltrated the Commonwealth and is engineering its destruction. Some of these characters return towards the end and assume greater importance in the plot in surprising ways, but Pandora's Star is like most multi-POV stories weaving a bunch of different plot threads together -- some are inevitably more interesting than others, and so the book is sometimes frustrating when it skips to a less interesting subplot just when one of the more interesting ones is getting somewhere. In this respect, Pandora's Star is more like a traditional epic fantasy doorstopper than a sci-fi novel, sharing the same flaws as The Way of Kings -- though at least I found most of the secondary characters in The Way of Kings interesting.

I have nothing good or bad to say about Hamilton's writing style -- it was fine prose. His characters are more three-dimensional than Asimov's or Clarke's, and more human than Alastair Reynolds's, but his vision does not rise to the level of any of those authors, nor is his worldbuilding as interesting as Frank Herbert's. This, ultimately, is what left me feeling vaguely disappointed with Pandora's Star. Let's be honest, most people don't expect Tolstoy or Dickens when they read space opera. They expect big epic adventure and aliens and space battles and some cool SFnal concepts and civilizations, and any thematic depth or nuanced characterization is kind of a bonus. The space operas that are most memorable to me are not necessarily fantastically well-written or literary. David Brin's Uplift War presents a believably old -- really, really, really old -- multi-galactic civilization with fantastically ancient technology, in which humans are hanging on by the skin of their teeth thanks to luck and a few quirks of history. Larry Niven's Known Space has aliens that everyone has imitated ever since -- Puppeteers, Kzinti, Pak -- and the Ringworld. Frank Herbert, love him or hate him, wrote a series that was grand and genre-defining and didn't give a shit about plausibility (starting with the planet Arrakis, which is a physical impossibility, much worse than Niven's engineering mistakes with Ringworld), or, at times, coherence. And they all presented human civilizations that were odd, altered, and bent by interstellar expansion, advanced technology, and alien contact.

Pandora's Star reminded me most of Hyperion, which also featured a human-dominated interstellar union linked by instant transportation networks, suddenly threatened with existential peril. Like Hyperion, I found the society less than completely believable, because all the planets were like fragments of Earth (and for the most part, 21st century Western society, even if some of the characters are described as non-white). There is certainly less difference between the people of this fictional 24th century and us than there is between us and people from the 18th century. I almost laughed out loud when some of Hamilton's secondary characters turned out to be Marxists. Seriously in the 24th century you still have Marxists running around trying to free a proletariat that clearly isn't in much need of being freed?

I faulted Alastair Reynolds for his cold, unsympathetic characters (and Pandora's Star also reminded me a bit of Revelation Space, in that both revolve around a crew questing after a stellar MacGuffin that threatens to unleash an extinction event), but at least Reynolds's characters are, while still human, definitely not humans like us, and his societies are not like ours. Hamilton writes a far future society that in some ways is less novel than Star Trek -- even the gender roles are pretty much unchanged. (There are some independent and competent female characters, but there are also several whose defining character trait is manipulative hawtness.)

Finally, the ending: Pandora's Star is basically the first half of a really big book. At the end, Epic Shit hits the fan, and it turns out you need to read Judas Unchained to find out what happens next. And yes, it literally ends with a literal cliffhanger. M*****f***er. Fortunately, the characters about to fall off a cliff aren't the most interesting ones.

Besides that, the Commonwealth has just entered into an all-out war against a numerically superior enemy bent on its extermination, and the "Starflyer" conspiracy, which has been a background subplot all through the book, is finally becoming significant.

Given that it took this long for me to start caring, I will probably read part two, but this is just a one-nighter, Space Opera, we're not getting back together. I won't let you tie me down anymore.

Verdict: This is science fiction for science fiction fans (especially of the pale male persuasion). It's got all your essential sci-fi ingredients: interstellar civilizations, advanced technology, nasty aliens, hot chicks, space battles, a complicated plot, and a universe that is still unthreateningly like ours. Like a tasty burger and fries, you'll enjoy it but ten years later you aren't going to think, "Yes, that burger and fries was really remarkable." Read it if space opera is your thing. If not, there are space epics that are just as good and half the length.
Tags: books, peter hamilton, reviews, science fiction

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